MINNEAPOLIS On June 15, 2001, the Twins traveled to Wrigley Field for a weekend series. They arrived in Chicago the best team in the AL Central, second-best in the league, boasting a 41-23 record. The Cubs were nearly as good, on top of the NL Central by a six-game margin, their 38-25 record worse than only the Diamondbacks in the NL.
The Cubs swept the Twins that weekend, back when Sammy Sosa was known for power rather than a corked bat and Torii Hunter was seven years from becoming an Angel. It was Tom Kelly vs. Don Baylor. It was before the Twins slipped behind the Indians and missed the playoffs, before the Cubs blew that six-game lead and fell to third in their division.
It was good baseball -- good teams, good ballpark, good fans.
This weekend? This wasn't that.
This weekend began as the AL's worst team against the NL's second-worst. This was a combined 43 wins and 72 losses going into Friday. But somehow, it almost didn't matter. Somehow, a feeling of hope lingered at Target Field. A packed ballpark can do that. Summer heat can, too, and a home team that had won seven of its last nine games going up against a visitor with just four wins in its last 22 chances.
The Budweiser Clydesdales showed up. There were still children with missing teeth on the Jumbotron, and a proposal, too. That salty, oily odor of hot dogs wafted through the stadium as always, and fans clamored for autographs at batting practice. Kids toted their gloves, even in seats far from where a ball might travel, and begged to eat ice cream out of plastic mini-helmets.
We like to think that this is so unique, each team and each experience, but some things in baseball can't help but be universal. They're the best parts of the game, the reasons we still show up. In shadows of the concourses, we close our eyes, and we're anywhere. Baseball can be separate from place, from team, even from season in those moments.
Sometimes that helps, especially in series like this Twins-Cubs matchup. Looking at the calendar a month ago, it would have been hard not to predict a mediocre series at best. This was never going to be that weekend in 2001, but it had the chance to be more than just the trappings of summer baseball. It would never validate either team, not when the opponents were so weak. But it could push the Cubs' struggles to a new, dooming level. It could kill the Twins' momentum or extend it. Or it could mean nothing, just mediocre baseball, a hot dog and a beer.
It came close to being a statement for the Twins. It did. It came so close to being the second sweep in four series, to showing that the Twins could win with both bats and arms. It came close to a complete, confidence-inspiring effort.
Then Sunday happened, and with that final pitch, the Twins fell just short, extending their hope without fully validating it. Now, it's easy to see which moments mattered and which everyone will forget. It's easy to say that the Twins wrote the series off as an accomplishment before they stepped on the diamond Sunday. But in real time, they were just moments.
It was ugly sometimes, beautiful in other instances. It was hot. It was windy. It couldn't help but be fun.
4:57 p.m.: Twins manager Ron Gardenhire ambles into the dugout for his pregame talk.
"Chrysler, a lot of people today," he says.
"Cubbies. Big following."
Gardenhire is sweating profusely. This is the first home series that will feel like real summer baseball, every game. What better time to start talking about turnarounds, now that it's a little sticky, a little past the point of writing off early-season struggles?
"We hope to (continue the turnaround)," Gardenhire says. "We've got to come home and do it on the field. We can talk about it all we want. We feel better about ourselves. We've been playing better. A lot more confidence."
5:04 p.m.: Cubs manager Dale Sveum looks tired. His grey stubble gives him a worn, up-all-night-worrying look. He can't sympathize with the Twins, he says, not when they've been winning. He's worried about the Cubs. He's worried about Alfonso Soriano as the designated hitter. Good DHs are players who are accustomed to it, who do it a lot, he said. Soriano is not one of them.
Sveum talks about minor league prospects, about struggles. There are more of those questions when you're losing. When he gets a second to breathe, he looks around at this ballpark his Cubs have yet to play in.
"This is a nice place."
6:49 p.m.: A fan with a Kerry Wood jersey crosses into the ballpark. That's No. 34, not to be confused with 30, Travis Wood, the Cubs' starter tonight. Kerry Wood retired May 18, perpetually baby-faced and not yet old, but people still wear his jerseys in favor of this new Wood. When you're the Cubs and you haven't made it to the playoffs since 2008, you do things like that.
7:19 p.m.: A "let's go Cubbies" chant begins. These fans travel. They're louder than they should be, on the road and with this lineup on the field.
8:15 p.m.: Chasing a popup, Chris Parmelee flips into the camera well, the messy and accidental acrobatics of a 230-pound man. Even Cubs fans in Section 320, the woman in a Ryan Theriot t-shirt and the man in an Aramis Ramirez jersey, gasp and clap.
Theriot? Ramirez? They don't let go of players easily, these Cubs fans.
9:43 p.m.: Soriano hits an upper-deck bomb to left field. It's his second home run of the night and gives the Cubs a 7-6 lead. Sveum's worries about his DH seem wildly off base.
10:48 p.m.: Josh Willingham singles in the bottom of the 10th, driving in Darin Mastroianni to win the game, 8-7. There are fireworks, a cluster of screaming and handshakes between first and second base. TC Bear wanders lackadaisically through the infield waving a Twins flag, perhaps the least-excited being in the stadium.
"He's been pretty good for us, pretty much from day one," Gardenhire said of Willingham after the game. "He's swinging good and playing pretty good. So yeah, we feel good."
It was long, too long, and messy. But in an exhausted, almost delirious way, it was good.
11:04 p.m.: Brian Dozier is wearing a shirt that says "go big or go home" at the most appropriate time. Willingham's two-year son, Ryder, toddles around the clubhouse clutching a popsicle. As his father talks, Ryder hits him with a black plastic coat hanger. The kid doesn't have a clue what's going on, not even an inkling that he's living every child's dream. If he somehow remembers this in five, 10 years, he'll realize that his dad's walk-off single, regardless of the Twins' record or opponent, is pretty close to baseball at its best. It's an ending that sticks with people, regardless of how harrowing the game might have been. All that is so easily forgotten.
"Good night to have a bad one," Twins starter P.J. Walters says.
2:23 p.m.: A Ryan Doumit double down the first-base line scores Joe Mauer and pushes the Twins' lead to 3-0. It's inches from being foul, and two weeks ago, it would have been. But baseball is a game of margins, of bounces and tweaks, and right now the Twins are shading away from terrible.
2:43 p.m.: Six runs later, the fourth inning is over, and the Cubs are buried under an 8-0 deficit. A walk around the concourses tempers the false significance of that lead, though. This might look like a Twins' turnaround, like the closest thing to perfection Minnesota's lineup can yield, but it's two games. It's one blowout, and even that isn't over yet. Twins fans aren't screaming about playoffs; in fact, many seem more concerned with their nachos. Cubs fans aren't streaming out of the stadium en masse. They're not crying. One man in a Cardinals jersey does look particularly elated, though, and he'd likely stay that way until the 11-3 Twins' win, an almost foregone conclusion.
4:24 p.m.: "We fight but we don't (do) nothing to win," Soriano said in the Cubs' clubhouse. "We are working hard to get better, but we've lost our confidence."
4:33 p.m.: When asked if he feels something building in the Twins' clubhouse, Scott Diamond, who pitched six shutout innings, can't help but smile. It's one of those smiles that athletes try to hide, as if they shouldn't be happy in such a pure, childlike sense. But Diamond, even against the Cubs, even on a losing team, was.
"We're trying to work series by series, and I think we've already accomplished that for this one," Diamond said. "Right now, we're working for a sweep."
It's harder to sweep when a team feels it's already accomplished what it wanted to.
10:32 a.m.: Gardenhire reclines in his office, a mural of Twins photos and newspaper covers on the wall behind him. There's the newspaper cover of his first win as a manager, Opening Day in 2002. There's Kirby Puckett celebrating, another newspaper sheet announcing Johan Santana's 2004 Cy Young Award. They're all reminders of better times, success.
And then there's his calendar, right there in the middle of it all and two months behind. According to that calendar, it's still April, the month when the Twins went 6-16. According to the calendar, this fledgling turnaround has yet to happen.
Time to turn the page.
2:06 p.m.: An hour in, Target Field is still waiting for the Twins' bats, already responsible for 19 runs this weekend, to come alive. The Cubs fans who hid behind their silence on Saturday are getting feisty, cheering like it's a novelty just to clap.
3:08-3:18 p.m.: This is when four runs becomes a troubling deficit for the Twins. In the seventh inning, Plouffe, after reaching on a single, is tagged out at the plate after a Castro fielding error. Then, in the next half inning, Twins pitcher Alex Burton botches a throw to Dozier on a fielder's choice, loading the bases for the Cubs. Two more runs, and the lead widens.
4:04 p.m.: A man in a Cubs jersey with the name "Taco Loco" on the back catches a Denard Span foul ball that was inches from giving the Twins their third and fourth runs of the ninth inning. Taco Loco is very excited. Seconds later, Span flies out. Game over, 8-2.
4:14 p.m.: After the game, Sveum seems relieved. He's ready to go home, he says, after a road trip that brought the Cubs just two wins in three series.
Sveum won, but it's Mauer who's talking about confidence a half hour later.
"Obviously today was a tough one, but you've got to realize that we won the series and keep moving forward," he says. "Guys, going into the off day, you try to remind them of that, come back and win another series."
So what was this? This was 114,849 fans and two Twins wins. It was 39 runs and four errors. It was the AL's worst team remaining as such, the Cubs barely resisting becoming the NL's worst at weekend's end. In the record books, that's all it was.
This might seem huge now, the two wins and the final, one-sided loss, but a weekend is just a flurry of bats and throws among the millions in a season. The Twins flirted with a bigger statement, with significance beyond just statistics, but Sunday destroyed it.
Winning the series, the Twins are saying they're changing. To sweep would have been to scream it, and when you're buried under an April and May like the Twins', you need to be screaming.
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